Saturday, January 28, 2023

“Revolutionary Prayer” - January 29, 2023

Text: Matthew 6:7-21

A few weeks ago, I was watching the NFL football game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills.  After making a tackle, a player for Buffalo stood up and then about a second later collapsed.  It was a medical emergency, and it went on and on.  They kept cutting to commercials and would come back and each time nothing had changed, the player was still lying on the field.  An ambulance was on the field and medical personnel were working on him.  The announcers did not know what to say and they were as shaken as anybody.  We heard that his heart had stopped.

And all around, football players were in tears.  They surrounded the injured player in part to give him privacy in the midst of 80,000 people and a national TV audience.  And these players and coaches, from both teams, were praying for Damar Hamlin.  It didn’t particularly matter what their faith or even whether they were religious.  They were praying for their teammate and friend and fellow human being.

In such times, prayer seems to be just the natural inclination of our hearts.  And whenever we join together in worship, prayer is a part of it – connecting with God.

For Christians, the most prayed prayer, far and away, is what we know as the Lord’s Prayer.  In first century Israel, it was a common practice for rabbis to teach a model prayer to their followers.  In fact, in the gospel of Luke, when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, they mentioned that John the Baptist had given such a prayer to his disciples.  

In the verses preceding the prayer in Matthew, Jesus says, “Don’t try to be all show-offy with your prayer.  Do it in private, don’t worry about using a bunch of words, if you are doing it for the benefit of others then you have already received whatever good you are going to get out of it.”  In other words, while Jesus is teaching us how to go about personal, private prayer, this has nevertheless become the most public and communal prayer in Christianity.  

I think that is OK.  Prayer is not about the magic of saying certain words in certain settings.  This model prayer of Jesus, this template for prayer, if you will, is about orienting us all to what God is about and what following Jesus is about.  And while it may have been taught as guidance for individual prayer, the themes of the prayer are not individual at all – they are very much about the wider community.

Well, how do we take in something as powerful and familiar as the Lord’s Prayer?  It is kind of like the 23rd Psalm in that it is so familiar.  And there is so much here.

What I want to do this morning is to look mostly at just two words.  Two little words that are absolutely revolutionary.  Two words that can change everything when it comes to prayer.

If you pay attention to the Lord’s Prayer, it is different from most of the prayers we offer.  You don’t find the words “me” or “my” or “I” in it.  You won’t find requests for a new car or a victory for quarterback Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers.  

Now, scripture does say, “Don’t worry about anything but pray about everything,” and it is good to lift all the concerns of our hearts to God in prayer.  But according to Jesus, prayer is not about having our wishes fulfilled by God but rather having our lives transformed by God.  This prayer is to tune our lives to God’s ways, God’s values, God’s concerns.  More than anything else, the Lord’s Prayer is about developing a relationship with God.

So here are those two words, those two powerful, revolutionary words that we find in the Lord’s Prayer.  They are the very first two words.  “Our Father.”  The prayer begins, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

Of all the words in this prayer, we may give these two words the least thought.  We might have questions about sins vs. debts vs. trespasses.  We might ask, “What does daily bread mean, anyway?”  We might wonder what it means to pray “thy kingdom come,” and we could spend a lot of time thinking about God transforming this world into the kind of world that God would want – on earth as it is in heaven.  

But we may not question “Our Father” very much.  We can skip right past that to get to what we think of perhaps as the “meat” of the prayer.

It is interesting that Jesus is teaching his disciples how to go about private prayer, not so much public prayer.  And yet, he doesn’t begin with “My Father.”  It is deeply personal, and it is also plural.  Our Father.  We pray to a God who cares for us deeply, but not only for us.  

Chuck Denison asked:

Why will [a large percentage] of Americans answer a survey by stating that they have a belief in God, while less than half that many confess to any involvement in a church?  One reason is because Americans have replaced ‘our’ with ‘my’.  This, of course, is stunning because the thoroughly biblical view is that Christianity is not exclusive.  It’s inclusive.  It’s not private.  It’s shared.  It’s not a solo flight. It’s a commuter jet.

It is very easy to have a personal claim on God.  It is very easy to make God into our own image, make our pressing concerns into God’s pressing concerns, and eventually turn the deity into our own thoughts and opinions and preferences writ large.

But “Our Father” does not mean just the God of our side,  the God of our team.  God is bigger than that.  “Our” does not mean people just like us.  God is not just God of the Baptists, or God of relatively in-the-know Midwesterners.  When we say “Our Father,” that is not what we mean.  

God is not just an American God.  If God is really the Creator of the Universe, if God is really Lord of all, then God does not belong to any particular segment of the human family.  To pray “Our” Father says something about our common humanity, our shared existence.  It says that God is the God of all who are gathered here and God of all in our circle of relationships.  It also means, like it or not, that God is the God of people who don’t believe the same as we do, and even people who don’t believe in God.  And if God is Father of us all, then we are all – siblings.  We’re all brothers and sisters.

Rather than just a kind of boilerplate intro to a prayer, these are two revolutionary words.  Think about how it would change things if all who prayed this prayer took this seriously.  We are praying to the God of people who have different political beliefs than us, different values, who live in far-flung places.  We are praying to the God of people we don’t even like.  If we really reflect on that, and consider the scope of God’s love and compassion, it can change things.  

We say “OUR” Father because we can’t say “MY Father in heaven.” God does not belong to me.  God does not belong to you.  Rather, we belong to God.

Just as the word “our” is packed with meaning, so is “Father.”  What does it mean to call God “Father?”  

First off, this has nothing to do with gender.  We are not saying that God is a boy.  God is neither male nor female.  In Genesis, we read that both male and female are created in God’s image.  

If by Father, Jesus is not really speaking of God’s gender, then what does it mean?  Why not “Spirit” or “Creator” or why not just “God”?

When Jesus prays in the New Testament, he usually calls God “Father.”  And the specific word here is “Abba,” which means something like “Daddy.”  It’s not exclusively what a child would call one’s Father, but it’s a very intimate relationship.

By “Father,” Jesus is saying something important about our relationship to God.  John Dominic Crossan (in The Greatest Prayer, p. 40ff) argues that in Biblical language, Father is most often an inclusive word that not only speaks of the parent of children, but “householder” in charge of a home or an extended family.  

Those who heard Jesus’ words, and most people today, know what a well-run home and a good householder is like.  Fields are cultivated and well-kept, livestock have provisions, dependents are cared for, food and shelter are provided.  Sick children receive special care, nursing mothers get special care.  Everyone has enough.  The householder acts justly, treats everyone fairly, and is a teacher and example to all who live in the house.

A good householder is a provider and protector and model.  To pray “Our Father,” then, is to pray to one who is intimately related to all of us, who cares for and provides for us, who models for us how we are to live.

I know that “Father” can be a loaded term for some who have not had a good relationship with their father or even been harmed by their father.  Some may be more comfortable with “Mother,” and that is a Biblical image as well, but that may not work very well for everybody either.  I think whatever image works for you is great.  There are all kind of Biblical images of God, but the image Jesus uses is one that is powerful and comforting and caring and familiar, one that is very personal.

“Our Father” conveys two important and powerful things about God.  First, this is not just my God, it is our God.  Yet at the same time, God is deeply personal, deeply invested in our welfare.  This is the God to whom we pray.  Not an earthly parent, but Our Father in Heaven.

We begin with “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”  Hallowed is not a word we use just every day.  I can only think of two common usages.  One is the Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which unless you have read it may not be that helpful.  The other is that we sometimes speak of a place as being hallowed ground.  For Cubs’ fans, Wrigley Field is hallowed ground.  Maybe your old home place is hallowed ground.  It means something like sacred, holy, venerated.

The ancient Hebrews were extremely cautious about using the divine name – to even speak it could put the person in jeopardy.  That is how seriously they took the name of God.  In the Hebrew Bible, God’s name is often just written as the consonants YHWH.  When Moses met God in the burning bush, he asked for God’s name, and God responded, “I am who I am.”  God would not be pinned down, God was free and God was holy.  The letters YHWH come from the Hebrew verb “I am,” but because God’s name was so holy they were generally not spoken.  These letters came to be pronounced Yahweh, and this is where the word “Jehovah” comes from.  God’s name is hallowed, holy.

We are to honor and respect God’s name – to hallow it.  Jesus knew that the failure to honor God’s name goes far beyond the way we address God.  Jesus knew that the failure to take God seriously, the failure to consider God’s claim on our world and God’s call on our lives and the failure to take to heart God’s values of justice and peace and righteousness and fairness – this lie at the heart of the troubles facing his day.  And it is exactly like that today.

When we pray, “Holy be your name,” we are in effect pledging ourselves not to misuse God’s name, not to use God’s name for our own purposes.  When we hear the commandment to not use God’s name in vain, a lot of people think that is talking about using God’s name in profanity.  And, I suppose that is taking God’s name in vain.  But that is a minor infraction compared to German troops in World War II going into battle with the words Gott Mit Uns, or God With Us, on their helmets.

To invoke the name of God as the patron of our own causes is to take God’s name in vain.  And in one way or another, that is something most of us find a way to do. To carry the name of Christ and treat others without respect is to take the name of God in vain.  To speak glibly about what God wants is a failure to hallow God’s name.  To put loyalty to clan or tradition or ideology or nation above commitment to God is to take God’s name in vain.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer really is to learn how to hallow God’s name.  To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to be shaped in a way that leads us to honor God.  Jesus taught this prayer because he knew that prayer is not about us changing God; it is about God changing us.  Understanding to whom we are praying and understanding our oneness with all of God’s children puts us in the right place as we pray.

Our Father, who art in heaven.  Hallowed be thy name.  Amen.


Saturday, January 21, 2023

“Temptation and the Wilderness” - January 22, 2023

Text: Matthew 4:1-17

It is good to be here with you all today.  I had some kind of stomach virus last weekend and I was sick.  I appreciate Rita and Mindy and Phyllis steeping in at the last minute to lead our service.  I was able to join you all on Zoom.  

You may remember that the scripture that was read last week was from Matthew chapter 5.  Phyllis did a meditation on being light, we sang This Little Light of Mine, and I really liked the trouble light she brought.

Well in the lectionary we are following, guess what the scripture was for today?  Of course, from Mathew 5.  Which is perfect – I’m going back to what was planned for last Sunday and we will be completely back on track as we make our way through the gospel of Matthew.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Jesus’ baptism.  As it turns out, there is no family reception afterwards.  No enjoying the moment.  Jesus’ hair is still wet when he is led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  Jesus is baptized and then immediately – boom - there is a time of intense trial.

He fasts for forty days and forty nights.  By then he was famished.  He was empty.  And that is when he is tempted – at a time when he is most vulnerable.

The devil says, “If you are the Son of God, then command these stones to become bread.”  Why not?  Jesus was hungry, bread is good – what could be the problem?

And then the devil takes Jesus up to the very top of the temple.  “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down – for it is written, ‘angels will bear you up and you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”  By proving his identity, proving who he was, Jesus could make a real splash.  People would be lining up to follow him.

And then the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and says to him, “All of this will be yours, if you will only worship me.”  But Jesus fends off each temptation, and the devil departs.

That is the Cliff’s Notes version.  But there is all kinds of stuff to be found in this scripture.  First, 40 days.  Where have we heard this before?  The number 40 is all over the place in the Bible and generally has to do with a time of trial and testing.  The Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness.  Moses was on the mountain 40 days receiving the law.  In the great flood, it rained 40 days and 40 nights.  Goliath taunted Israel for 40 days before David defeated him.  The number 40 has to do with big, significant matters.  This is a crucial time for Jesus.

Another thing to point out: the devil quotes scripture to Jesus.  Did you notice that?  He knows exactly what the Bible says and he knows how to use it.  

There is a long tradition of following the devil’s interpretive approach when it comes to the Bible.  Scripture has been used to support and to provide cover for all sorts of monstrous things – like slavery, bigotry, the subjugation of women, the oppression of the poor, disdain for minority groups, homophobia, blind obedience to unjust governments, and a lot more.  

Familiarity with the Bible does not necessarily translate into a living relationship with Christ in which scripture is discerned and followed according to the love and grace of God.  We might say that the devil knew the scripture but Jesus was willing to live the scripture.

And then look at the way the devil appeals to Jesus.   “If you are the Son of God…”  Prove who you are.  This is all about identity.  Proving who we are, proving we belong, proving we have what it takes – these can be tempting for all of us.  

Now the devil says, “All of this is mine, this world is mine, and I will give it all to you if you will just worship me.”  I’m just wondering – is that true?  Is the world really the devil’s to give?  Is the world really given over to the power of evil?  It’s not.  That’s a lie.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”  The earth belongs to God, with humans serving as caretakers or stewards.  The world is not the devil’s to give; this is a false promise.

We can be tempted by appeals to our vanity, appeals to our identity, appeals to prove ourselves, appeals to the hunger we are feeling, appeals to power.  We can be tempted to escape from all of the difficulties that come as a part of being human.  We can be tempted by all sorts of things, but we need to know that often as not, the promises of the temptations that we feel are not true.  

We might think of Jesus’ temptation as Jesus struggling with what it meant to be Jesus.  He did not choose the path of power.  He did not opt for the spectacular.  He chose to identify fully with us.  He chose to be fully human, which meant not avoiding or escaping from pain and not taking on the persona of a superhero, but being faithful to his calling even in the midst of difficulty.  Jesus embraced his humanity.

I’d like for us to think about where this all took place: in the wilderness. The wilderness is actually a place that we are familiar with.  The wilderness might look a lot like a hospital waiting room.  It might look like an inbox that seems to only get rejection letters, if anything.  It might look like a friend’s couch when you don’t have any other place to stay.  

The wilderness might be staring at the computer screen as you register for classes and wonder if this is really what you want to do with your life.  It might be watching someone you love self-destruct, or maybe the wilderness is a feeling deep inside, that feeling when you have looked and listened and pleaded for a word from God but come up empty.

The wilderness is that place where we look around for the things that we can usually count on to save us and they are nowhere to be found.  This is not a place that any of us would seek after.  Yet – we read that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.  This is something that apparently Jesus needed.  This is something that God wanted.

Isn’t that odd?  I mean, don’t we pray, “lead us not into temptation?”  Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness – into a time of temptation?

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote,

“Even if no one ever wants to be there… wilderness is one of the most reality-based, spirit-filled, life-changing places a person can be…

What did that long, famishing stretch in the wilderness do to (Jesus)?  It freed him--from all devilish attempts to distract him from his true purpose, from hungry craving for things with no power to give him life, from any illusion he might have had that God would make his choices for him.  After forty days in the wilderness, Jesus had not only learned to manage his appetites; he had also learned to trust the Spirit that had led him there to lead him out again, with the kind of clarity and grit he could not have found anywhere else.

College basketball coaches have a couple of ways they can go about it when it comes to scheduling non-conference opponents.  You can load up on cupcakes – you can play the Little Sisters of the Poor and get some guaranteed wins to pad your record.  But that does not really help you become a better basketball team.  When you have to play those really tough games, you won’t be prepared.  On the other hand, you can schedule really difficult opponents, knowing that you may lose your share of games – but that tough competition helps the team learn how to manage adversity and develop skills they would not otherwise develop.  That experience will help later in the season when Kansas comes to town.  

Of course, Jesus isn’t playing a game.  And neither are we – this is real-life stuff.  But it is during those challenging times that we can learn a lot about ourselves and a lot about God and even find it to be a time of growth and transformation.

In the early days of the civil rights movement, during the bus boycott in Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr. did not know how he could go on.  He received death threats on the phone.  He feared for his family.  Many sympathetic whites didn’t want to rock the boat and many middle class blacks were offended and unsupportive.  The sheer neediness of so many people pressed on his mind.  On an already sleepless night, there came another death threat, and he couldn’t go back to sleep.

In a life that faced many wilderness times, this was perhaps the low point.  Taylor Branch, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Parting the Waters, described what happened:

King buried his face in his hands at the kitchen table.  He admitted to himself that he was afraid, that he had nothing left, that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength.  Then he said as much out loud...His doubts spilled out as a prayer, ending “I’ve come to the point where I can't face it alone.”  As he spoke these words, the doubts suddenly melted away.  He became intensely aware of an “inner voice” telling him to do what he thought was right.

This experience of God’s grace and presence was a life-changing event for King.  And it came out of his wilderness experience.  King learned to trust God in those hard times.

I recently re-read King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  While in jail, he made use of the time and wrote a letter to white clergy leaders in Birmingham.  

The letter is found as a chapter in King’s later book, Why We Can’t Wait.  I have had my copy since seminary.  I read it for the very first seminary class I took, Introduction to Christian Ethics with Henlee Barnette.  Henlee had invited Dr. King to speak on the Southern Baptist Seminary campus 25 years before.  This was controversial, and Barnette got an enormous amount of flak for it.  He was told that this cost the seminary tens of thousands of dollars in contributions.  His response was, “Money well spent.”

Well, I had notes in the margin of the book from my class with Henlee Barnette about the people to whom this letter was written.  They were all prominent clergy in Montgomery.  Among others, there was the Methodist bishop, the Episcopal bishop, the Lutheran bishop, and the pastor of First Baptist Church.  These were all leading religious figures and all considered moderates, perhaps liberals.

Rev. Earl Stallings was pastor at First Baptist and had led the church to integrate, welcoming blacks to worship there on an integrated basis just before King was arrested and jailed in Birmingham.  King actually commends Stallings for this in his letter.  For a white Baptist church in Alabama in 1963, this was considered wildly liberal.

As far as King’s purpose in writing, this may get at the heart of it.  He wrote:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Council or Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than justice… who says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action, who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…”

I thought about Rev. Stallings at First Baptist Church and those other leading ministers.  I’m sure that church would dwarf us in size, but we would be similar in being seen as a progressive congregation, especially for Baptists.  So essentially, this letter was written to people like us.

What was the great temptation for Rev. Stallings and Bishop Durick and Bishop Carpenter and those other moderate-to-liberal clergy?  It is really the same as the temptation for those seminary leaders who were so upset about Dr. Barnette inviting Dr. King to come speak in Louisville.  The temptation was to put social standing and discomfort about conflict and what they saw as institutional advancement and survival ahead of what they knew to be right.

King’s words are not a historical document about the way things were.  They speak to us today about the way things are.  How often are we tempted to keep quiet, to stay on the sidelines, to do nothing when doing nothing means allowing the evil that is present to continue?

Of course there are often considerations about tactics and strategy and how best to move forward.  The answers are not always easy.  But sitting idly by can be a great temptation.  

Sometimes, it seems, God’s invitation is to head right into the wilderness and trust that the Spirit will provide for us.  Sometimes the Spirit leads us to do what is difficult and right rather than what is expedient and easy.

We often pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  But let’s face it: we can do our best, but temptation cannot always be avoided.  We all know this.  So we also pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  

If you are feeling like you are in the wilderness today, take heart.  Not only does God deliver us from those times of challenge and stress and hardship, but through the wilderness, God can bless us and strengthen us and prepare us and transform us.  Amen.


Saturday, January 7, 2023

 “You Are Mine” - January 8, 2023

Text: Matthew 3:1-17

In our scripture this morning, Jesus goes to John out in the wilderness and asks to be baptized.  This text is full of meaning, and it’s an especially appropriate scripture for us, because – why?  We are Baptists, and our name comes from the rite of baptism.  “Baptist” was actually a pejorative term – a putdown - given to these separatist churches that arose in England insisting on baptism for believers – those old enough to know what they were doing.  The word Baptist stuck and was taken as more or less a badge of honor.  

Since it is in our name and our history, we might as well talk about baptism every once in a while.

A number of years ago there was an Ollie class – that’s life-long learning at Iowa State – about different congregations in town.  Each week the class visited a different place of worship and one week they were here at our church.  I talked about our church and tried to make it interesting, I even had a Who Want to be a Millionaire segment with questions about Baptists, but I was losing the crowd.  I was bombing.  There was a short break, and when we came back together I was in the baptistry and talked about baptism.  And suddenly, people were really engaged.  They found it fascinating and I thought, “Maybe we will be more interesting than the Lutherans after all.”

You may have noticed that we have the curtains open on the baptistry today as we think about baptism – Jesus’ baptism as well as our own.

Some of you were baptized here in this church.  For some, that may have been quite a few years ago.  We actually have one member, Pat Johnson, who was baptized in the old church downtown.  Some of you have been here early on a Sunday morning, filling the baptistry with water.  Some of you have been present to assist baptismal candidates get in and out of the water.  And I imagine that a good number of you have never seen the inside of our baptistry.

We actually have a huge baptismal pool.  The architect made it much larger than it would need to be – we could have big old hot tub parties in there.  

John did not have a nice hot tub sized indoor heated baptistry.  He baptized in the Jordan River.  And I suspect there are those of you here who were not baptized indoors either.  How many were baptized in a creek or lake or river or ocean –or even a swimming pool?

It is a bit more domesticated and certainly easier when you have indoor plumbing.  I remember John and Elaine Anderson talking about breaking the ice in winter to have a baptism in northern Minnesota.  Fred and Dianne Borgen may have some of those memories as well.  But the fact is that wherever you do it, in the Jordan River or a Minnesota creek or here at First Baptist, it is still a bit odd.  As a testimony to our faith in Jesus, we get dunked in a pool of water while friends and family watch in anticipation.  Someone who wasn’t familiar with the idea would surely scratch their heads and ask, “What’s up with that?”

What is up with that?  Maybe a good place to start is Jesus’ baptism.  

We are now in the gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, and we will be in Matthew through Easter.   But to step back just a bit, the very last words of the Old Testament, right before Matthew, come from the prophet Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.”  A cheery way to end a book, right?

The gospel of Matthew begins with genealogies, the birth of Jesus, the visit of the Magi, and the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt to escape Herod.  And then Matthew skips ahead in time - nothing about Jesus’ childhood or adolescence.  The next thing we know, here comes John the Baptist.  John fulfills the role of Elijah, the one who would be sent ahead.  He is in the mold of a wild Old Testament prophet, out in the wilderness.

John does not have an especially comforting message.  Like the prophets of old, he calls down judgment.  “You brood of vipers! … even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree.”  

To be honest, it doesn’t seem like this would be all that popular.  And yet, everybody wants to come out to see him.  Even members of the establishment, folks with power and position came for baptism – and John confronts them with judgment.  But here is the thing: while John comes across as this wild-eyed prophet, wearing camel skins, eating honey and locusts, and giving these turn-or-burn sermons, his message is actually reasonable and doable.  “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  What counts is the way you live.  Righteousness is not about historical identity or the group you belong to, but about the way you live your life in relationship to God.

John calls for repentance.  A call to repentance can be heard as a harsh demand to change.  (And if you are called a brood of vipers, I guess that does add to the harshness.)  But a call to repentance can also be heard as an invitation.  Repentance can be not just a turning away, but a turning toward.  “The kingdom of heaven is near.”  Repentance is not just leaving behind the past, leaving behind our sin, not just changing our ways, it is claiming and moving toward a new future – toward God’s coming reign.  Baptism is a symbol of that new life.

So the crowds come to hear John, many are baptized, and then Jesus himself comes to John for baptism.  This is puzzling for John.  “You’re the one who should be baptizing me,” he says.  But Jesus says, “It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus is baptized to show us what righteousness is like, and in his baptism he identifies completely with us in our need and in our humanity.

The passage ends not in judgment and not in fire, but with love and affirmation.  The Spirit descends and there is the voice from heaven: “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

What exactly is God pleased with?  Jesus has not actually done anything, not yet.  He has simply been baptized, and God says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Baptism has to do with who we are – with our identity as beloved children of God.  Following Jesus in baptism is a choice we make, but it is not about anything that we have earned.

John’s baptism was not exactly the same as Christian baptism, but it certainly anticipates it.  As practiced in the New Testament, baptism is for those who have accepted God’s gift of grace and chosen for themselves to follow Christ.  As Paul describes it, it is a symbol of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.

I know that many of you grew up in other traditions – some of you were baptized as infants and then at a later point professed your own faith in Christ.  We actually have folks who have come from a lot of different traditions in our church and we honor and celebrate those different traditions.  Whether you were baptized in a Baptist church or Methodist or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Christian Church or Catholic, in all of these various traditions, baptism is a sign of God’s grace and God’s claim on us as beloved children.  

Jesus’ baptism points out for us a dimension of faith that we need to take seriously, and that is, authentic, vital faith is both individual and communal.  It is deeply personal, but it also happens in community and involves the community.

At his baptism, Jesus decides for himself that this is the path he will follow.  And as he rises from the water, there is a voice from heaven: “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.”  

And yet, it happens in community.  Jesus doesn’t go to John after business hours, he goes like everyone else; he goes with the crowds to the Jordan River where John is doing his thing and he is baptized in the midst of all of those who have come to be baptized by John.  

Faith is deeply personal for all of us.   We cannot scoot by on our parents’ faith or our church’s faith or anyone else’s faith: it has to be our own.  And God says to each of us, even as God said to Jesus, “You are my beloved child.”  At the same time, we are baptized into the Church, into a community of faith made of those flawed, imperfect, yes, sinful people who are seeking together to follow Jesus.

The Church is a community where we encourage one another and challenge one another and support one another and teach one another, a place where we remind each other who we are – God’s beloved children.

Baptism isn’t magic – it doesn’t transform a person just by virtue of getting wet.  The faith that is present and the commitment that is made and more than that, God’s love and grace toward us are what really matters.  

There is something very powerful about entering the waters of baptism as people have over the centuries, back to Jesus himself.  There is something about having the waters wash over you and experiencing this very tangible sign that we have been made clean, that we have risen to new life.  As we seek to follow Jesus, we follow his example in the act of baptism.  

I happened upon a news story a while back.  It was about a Baptist church in Oklahoma.  The pastor is seen in a video of a worship service telling off a member who has fallen asleep before chastising another member for missing services.  He says to this second man – in a sermon – “I noticed on the calendar I’m supposed to marry you all.  What makes you think I would marry you?  You’re one of the sorriest church members I have.  You’re not worth 15 cents.”

Well, you see why this caught my attention.  This was said in a sermon, captured on video, and what was most shocking is that the church actually put it online.

The pastor’s comments were just unfathomable.  He later defended his words as a kind of “tough love.”  I didn’t buy it.  This was miles and miles from the spirit of Jesus.

No, God says to each of us, you are my beloved child.  You are of great value.  You are so important and I love you so much that I took on human flesh.  In Isaiah, we have God’s words, “Do not be afraid, I have called you by name, I have redeemed you, you are mine.”

Of course, we are not perfect.  Of course, we fall short.  But God loves us and offers us grace and invites us to make new beginnings.  God sees us as beloved children.

And that, really, is what baptism is about.  Following the one who loves us.  Which means that as Christians, we spend our lives living out our baptisms – following in the way of Jesus.    Amen.